As journalists report about issues affecting race relations, racism, and inequality, particularly around issues such as Black Lives Matter and debates around voting rights/voting integrity, one area of debate has been around the capitalization of racial signifiers in news coverage – i.e. black and white.
AllSides analyzed 215 articles from 43 outlets on the AllSides Media Bias Chart™ to discover which outlets capitalize black and white when referring to race in their coverage. We found outlets on the left capitalized black in their coverage significantly more than outlets on the right. Of the 21 outlets on the left – including 6 outlets rated Left and 15 outlets rated Lean Left – every outlet except for one capitalized black in the articles analyzed.
Of the sample of outlets, 95% of outlets on the left and 20% of outlets on the right consistently capitalized the word black in coverage of race. Five news articles were analyzed from each outlet. For more details, see the methodology.
The Guardian (Lean Left bias) was the only outlet on the left that did not capitalize the word black. On the right, the only outlets that did capitalize the word were The Washington Times (Lean Right bias), Newsmax (Right bias), and Fox News (Right bias).
While in the past, most newsrooms did not capitalize racial signifiers, many newsrooms issued statements announcing changes in editorial policies in summer 2020. Some news outlets now choose to capitalize both black and white, while some still choose to capitalize one or the other, or neither. An editorial decision to capitalize – or not capitalize – racial signifiers may be a sign of media bias – meaning, it may give us a hint as to the editorial team’s political stances on racial and social issues.
Of all outlets analyzed on the left, 17 (81%) consistently did not capitalize the word white in coverage. Three outlets – Bloomberg (Lean Left bias), CNN (Lean Left bias), and The Washington Post (Lean Left bias) – capitalized white in addition to black. CBS News (Lean Left bias) varied throughout in its capitalization of white.
While many outlets on the right capitalized neither black nor white, just one outlet on the left didn’t capitalize the signifers: The Guardian.
The analysis also looked at seven outlets rated Center by AllSides. Four of the outlets followed the same convention as most outlets on the left – capitalizing black and not white.
Justification for Capitalizing – or Not Capitalizing – Black and White
Per AllSides’ editorial guidelines, we use lowercase for the racial signifiers black and white in our original reporting. We do not hold this standard for opinion content in our Perspectives Blog, where choices from individual authors may vary. Both terms are generic, and used to capture a broad range of races and ethnicities across the world. Geographic identifiers, such as African or European, are capitalized. Read more about AllSides’ decision around this issue here.
It is worth noting that not all AllSides staff members agree with this editorial guideline. As we strive to have a team with balanced perspectives, some on our team believe racial signifiers should always be capitalized, some believe they should be lowercase, and some believe they should follow the Associated Press (Lean Left bias) stylebook – which capitalizes black but not white.
The Associated Press argued in 2020 that its guideline to capitalize black conveys “an essential and shared sense of history, identity and community among people who identify as Black, including those in the African diaspora and within Africa. The lowercase black is a color, not a person.” In terms of capitalizing the racial signifier white, The Associated Press says, “White people generally do not share the same history and culture, or the experience of being discriminated against because of skin color… We agree that white people’s skin color plays into systemic inequalities and injustices, and we want our journalism to robustly explore those problems. But capitalizing the term white, as is done by white supremacists, risks subtly conveying legitimacy to such beliefs.”
Some journalists have pushed back against The Associated Press’ guideline, such as Matt Margolis from PJ Media (Right bias), who argued that “If the lower-case ‘b’ was such an insult to Black people, then why shouldn’t the lower-case ‘w’ be an insult to White people, or the lower-case ‘b’ be an insult to Brown people? Right now the Associated Press is affirming the idea that certain racial groups deserve respect, while others don’t.”
Axios (Lean Left) explained, “There's a growing desire within Black communities to reflect Black culture, and acknowledge the fact that not all who identify as Black are from Africa or have descended from people from Africa.”
The National Association of Black Journalists issued a recommendation in 2020 for black to be capitalized across the journalism industry, along with other racial signifiers used as colors, including white and brown.
The Washington Post, which capitalizes both black and white in its original coverage, argues the capitalization of white is appropriate because “White also represents a distinct cultural identity in the United States. In American history, many White Europeans who entered the country during times of mass migration were the targets of racial and ethnic discrimination. These diverse ethnicities were eventually assimilated into the collective group that has had its own cultural and historical impact on the nation. As such, White should be represented with a capital W.”
Fox News also made the editorial decision to capitalize black in 2020, concurring with the recommendation by the National Association of Black Journalists.
This analysis included 43 total outlets found on the AllSides Media Bias Chart™, of which 6 were rated Left, 15 were rated Lean Left, 7 were rated Center, 5 were rated Lean Right, and 10 were rated Right.
Lean Left bias: The New York Times, ABC News, The Associated Press, Axios, Bloomberg, CNN, CBS News, The Guardian, Insider, NBC News, NPR, Politico, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and USA Today.
Five articles were identified from each outlet analyzed and used for the analysis. Each article analyzed mentioned black and/or white in terms of race in the paragraph copy of the article. All articles analyzed were published on each source’s respective website between June 1, 2022 – February 28, 2023. All articles were news stories; opinion pieces were excluded.
The analysis did not include racial signifiers found in headlines or quotations. The intention of this analysis was to identify what words journalists use themselves. Some other exclusion criteria involved phrases stemming from the racial signifiers: Black History Month, white supremacy, black supremacy, white privelege, Black Power, White Power, Black Lives Matter, White Lives Matter. The words blacks and whites were included in the analysis, when all other criteria were met.
Andrew Weinzierl is AllSides’ Bias Research Manager & Data Journalist. He has a Lean Left bias.
This piece was reviewed by Henry A. Brechter, Editor-in-chief (Center bias), Joseph Ratliff, Daily News Editor (Lean Left bias), Julie Mastrine, Director of Marketing and Media Bias Ratings (Lean Right bias), and Johnathon Held, Research & Content Intern (Lean Right bias).